fragments of obsolete cinema
When we speak of the globalisation of cinema we tend to forget previous trajectories of film circulation. So I was excited to come across this advert in an issue of the film magazine Khao phapphayon (ข่าวภาพยนตร์) dated October 30, 1954. It announces an upcoming picture by the British Burma Film Company, one of the earliest production houses to have started up in Rangoon according to this useful overview of Burma’s cinema history. The Thai title, ฉันเป็นบุเรงนอง, translates as “I am Bayinnnaung.”
Bayinnnaung the 16th century king of the Toungoo dynasty became popularised as the archetypal fictional hero in Siam thanks to a novel called Phu chana sib thid (ผู้ชนะสิบทิศ). Its writer Chote Phraephan or “Yacob,” who serialised this hugely popular novel over a number of years from the early 1930s, constructed Bayinnaung as the ideal warrior hero – victorious in love and war. Hence the association of virility in the title, which, alas, translates into rather absurd English: “triumphant in ten directions.”
The popularity of Yacob’s novel no doubt influenced the distributor’s decision to purchase the film for the Siamese market. I’m intrigued, though, by the tagline at the top of the advert: “the coward’s victory..!” Perhaps “I am Bayinnaung” is poking fun at a heroic mythology?
The advert says the film is being shown versioned in Thai (rather than subtitled), and that it is in “natural colour” (สีธรรมชาติ). After the Second World War a distinction came into play in Siamese film adverts between “natural colour” and “technicolor” films. Sometimes local films shot on silent 16mm would be advertised as “natural colour,” and often as “Eastmancolor” even if they weren’t actually shot on Kodak stock!
The other detail that excites me about this advert is its announcement that “I am Bayinnaung” would be shown using a special lens: the MovieScope. In an earlier issue Khao phapphayon magazine had featured a news item on the effort of a local man, Boonchuay Loonphai, to invent a cheap alternative to the latest cinematic novelty: the widescreen ‘Scope lens. When I first came across this news it sounded fanciful, but perhaps Mr. Boonchuay did manage to carry through his vision after all.
“I am Bayinnaung” screened at the Prince Bang-rak cinema in Silom, near what most tourists would now recognise as the skytrain stop by the Chao Phraya river whose name sounds vaguely like that of Thailand’s ex-prime minister. In 1954 Prince would no longer have counted amongst Bangkok’s first grade cinema theatres. It would have been precisely those kind of declining neighbourhood cinemas that Mr. Boonchuay wanted his MovieScope to service – local cinemas that couldn’t afford to overhaul their equipment but knew they had to raise their widescreen game.
Impressively, unlike most standalone cinemas in Bangkok the Prince Bang-rak has staggered into the contemporary period. At some point in the age of the home video, it adapted to the dwindling number of patrons by turning itself into a porn cinema. I think Prince is still open for business. But if porn’s not your thing you could always go taste the famous jok prince congee stall in the alleyway leading to the cinema’s entrance.
On another tangent, this fine piece published on Le Minh Khai’s SEAsian History Blog, and recommended by The Southeast Asia Movie Theater Project, gives us a glimpse into the cosmopolitanism and future-oriented energy underpinning cinemagoing in Burma in 1954.
May Adadol Ingawanij